In the sunny lobby of a boutique hotel in Tlaquepaque, Mexico a few months back, a fellow journalist introduced herself to me and then asked me a question I dread.
“Where are you based?” said Meredith Heil, a writer on all things travel and culture.
I fumbled over trying to explain that I’d just come from the Bahamas, and New Zealand and New York before that, and had some of my things in DC, some in Tulsa and New Orleans. I finally settled on the word “itinerant,” then told her what it meant, then apologized for being a dick by presuming to explain a word to someone, let alone to a fellow writer.
“You’re freebasing!” Heil grinned, letting my dickishness off the hook. We both laughed as the pun dawned on me.
Freebasing, for those unaware, is a particularly potent method of smoking cocaine, which I was not doing. Heil’s usage (which, others have confirmed, she coined in the last year) is a cheeky way to describe living with no home base at all. I liked the descriptor immediately, in part because it’s hilarious and I’m a sucker for puns, but also because its irreverence describes my lifestyle with a precision other labels haven’t.
There’s a cringeworthy phrase in common usage that comes close: “digital nomad.” To me it smacks of a tech-bro aesthetic and celebrates a level of un-self-aware privilege. “It’s a white privilege term, kind of kind of like expat,” says freebasing journalist Natalie Compton, “that only applies to a lucky few who get to travel freely thanks to their race and/or passport.”
I bristle at it for the same reasons. But privilege is privilege all the same, whether I’m aware of it or not.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many people live this way. One blog touting the digital nomad lifestyle extrapolates from statistics on remote-working employees to arrive at an estimate of 21-33 million. That estimate seems outlandishly high, but as the technology that makes remote work possible advances and notoriously non-committal millennials grow into our careers the number of people living untethered to any particular place is sure to grow. (Another blog written by a developer who specializes in software for digital nomads estimates that by 2035 there could be as many as a billion—I don’t believe it, but take it for what it’s worth.)
I started traveling more or less constantly just after college, with a move to Manila for a Fulbright. I’ve had stints of the settled life for a year or two here and there—in grad school, or a relationship, or a desk job—before heading back out “in the wind” as I often say. Now I am a travel writer and get paid to write about the places I visit.
I can travel constantly, in part, because my community quite literally supports my lifestyle. My brother and my sister-in-law allow me to leave a few things at their home near Washington, D.C., and to crash with them when I’m in town. I grew up in a house in Oklahoma that my parents still let me store a few things in.
I own almost nothing because I can afford to—minimalism is a luxury. The stuff littering front yards in low-income neighborhoods is a kind of primitive insurance, a hedge against some future calamity in which you might need a part from a busted old car, but I don’t need a car. If I need a ride I request one through an app or hail a taxi or, in a serious pinch, if I have the cash, rent one. The layers of privilege embedded in that last sentence are not lost on me.
What you need to freebase like me
The logistics of not having a permanent address for official purposes—government forms and whatnot—are surprisingly simple. I rent a private mailbox for about $150 a year, and once in awhile either check it myself or have my mail mailed to me. For a remote worker, any decent wifi connection is as good as the next. And when your life is your job, life on the road adds up to a lot of tax write offs.
I can’t say I save money by not having an apartment, because what isn’t spent on rent and utilities gets spent on temporary lodging in different spots around the world. Longer stays are cheaper—I rented an apartment for a month in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, a five minute walk from one of the most consistent surfable waves in the world for $504. My room in a guest house in the old medina of Essaouira, Morocco, on the Atlantic coast was $490 for the month. Occasionally I have splurged—a glass-walled, multi-story house on a hill overlooking the Pacific ocean (and another legendary wave) in Máncora, Peru, was $554 for just five nights, but it came with two puppies, so, totally worth it.
Sometimes one must stay in a costlier city, which can get tricky. My apartment in Paris was almost $900 for two weeks (though I stayed in the touristy Latin Quarter—I could have done better). In Los Angeles I stayed in a bland Culver City apartment for $50 a night, but finally decided to mix it up by booking a stay in a sailboat docked at Marina del Ray for $146 a night. If I need to save cash, I simply (admittedly making full use of my privilege) search the world for an especially great deal and park for awhile in a part of the world where the American dollars I get paid in stretch further—$210 for a month at a yoga retreat in Lombok, an island next door to Bali in Indonesia.
Plane tickets are a big expense in the freebasing life, but if you’re flexible about your destination there are ways to make it work. The “explore map” tool on Google Flights is a great resource, as is the Scott’s Cheap Flights newsletter.
On days when I absolutely needed internet, I used to spend $8 a day to run a Skyroam hotspot, but nowadays, with Google’s Project Fi as my cell carrier, I have a phone and data plan for about $80 a month that works in 170 countries.
Life "in the wind" has its price
It’s not the constant movement or the prices—it’s the loneliness that gets to me. Swimming alone in a deserted cove in the Virgin Islands or getting teary eyed solo while a Portuguese crooner wails out a baleful fado ballad at a tiny Lisbon bar are blessings that call for immense gratitude. But experiencing beauty in solitude can become a peculiar sort of prison too, like some especially demented form of solitary confinement. For the untethered and independent, the answer to that conundrum lies within.
“If anything, this job or lifestyle has taught me that I'm in control of my loneliness,” Compton said. "If I haven't talked to anyone in a day, I'm the only one who can change that. I can always go to a bar or gym or local event or meet someone on Tinder.” I find that low-key bars with live music are a great place to make friends. Tinder is a great travel tool as well, and not just for getting laid. I’ve had platonic adventures with people I’ve met on Tinder all over the world (and some not so platonic adventures too).
I like freebasing—(I will never stop laughing at that)—because of its peculiar joys. I wake up in novel, often beautiful, places. I can follow my journalist’s instinct to the extreme, letting a story or a project take me where it will. I love the endless mind-freak of meeting new people in unfamiliar contexts and catching up with long lost old friends when I pass through their cities. “‘Freebasing,’ I like that,” says formerly-freebasing writer now based in Berlin, Aric S. Queen, when I asked what he thought of the term. “It suggests the addictive nature of the whole deal.”
“Are we running away from something?,” Compton asked rhetorically. “Probably. Do I mind? Not at the moment. I feel like I've never been happier, and have learned so much from the chaotic lifestyle.”
With his freebasing days behind him for the moment, Queen’s cold analysis is a bit more sobering. “When in transit nonstop, every bad thing you think about yourself can be covered up with that ‘I just never had the time to (fill in the blank)’—be that invest in a friendship or relationship or career. Once you settle down, you have to face the very disturbing fact that maybe you're just an asshole.”
Maybe so. And maybe freebasing is a stupid way to describe being a digital nomad. But I like it, and it got you to click on this article, to which you’ve made it all the way to the end. Hunter S. Thompson once told an interviewer, “I haven’t found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing.” Be that as it may, I haven’t found a drug that can get you anywhere near as high as freebasing.